Identity politics

The Bourne Ultimatum is the third and presumably ultimate film in the trilogy that began in 2002 with The Bourne Identity. And it’s making a hell of a lot of money at the United States box office. This is interesting because it is so far away from the boneheaded militarism of the likes of that other hit, 300. It’s relentlessly exciting, sure, but it is also an almost self-deconstructing take on the espionage thriller and thus on the morality of secret state forces.

Before and between Bourne movies, British director Paul Greengrass made rigorously documentary-like reconstructions of historical events. Bloody Sunday was set in the Ireland of the Troubles and United 93 was a devastating look at what (may have) happened on the only 9/11 flight to hit the ground. Greengrass’s take on the Bourne franchise is to produce a contemporary version of the 1970s ”paranoid” thriller, with its conspiracies, power plays and secret agencies within secret agencies. The Bourne Ultimatum could be subtitled after an early Greengrass TV project — When the Lies Run Out.

The Bourne Identity began with Bourne’s almost lifeless body being washed up on a distant shore. He lives to realise that he doesn’t know who he is, but that he has practically superhuman powers of aggression and destruction. He’s like a realistic version of those kung-fu movie heroes who suddenly discover, with mystical force, that they have the power of the Buddha’s Palm.

Since the first film, Matt Damon’s Bourne has been on the run from his former employers. Then he just wanted to be free of them. In the second movie, The Bourne Supremacy, he wanted revenge after they iced his girlfriend. Now he wants to find out who he is and how he became a super-assassin. In a sense, he is now both hunter and quarry.

A more neatly self-enclosed plot one couldn’t imagine. And it works brilliantly to focus our minds on the perpetual chase that is the basic form of the film. It leaps from city to city with little more than a giddy aerial shot — no tedious passport controls or anything like that. We know from the first movie that Bourne has Swiss bank accounts and fake passports galore. We don’t even see him dozing on the flight. Just that helicopter whoosh over London or Tangiers or Madrid and Bourne’s there. Bam.

Cinematographer Oliver Wood shoots almost the entire movie as if with a handheld camera. The chase and action sequences, which are superb, practically give the viewer whiplash. But even a quiet conversation is shot shakily, as though the characters were surreptitiously under surveillance from behind a pot plant. Often the person close-up in the foreground, represented mostly by the back of his or her head, takes up two-thirds of the frame. The interlocutor is occluded and confined in what space remains. Such shots are an almost subliminal symbol of the darkness Bourne has to grope through if he is to find the truth.

Damon, with his blankness of personality, is perfect in the role. His usual air of apologetic middle-Americanism is absent; it would be of no use here. Bourne is the ambiguous and ambivalent anti-hero or quasi-hero who allows us (and the filmmakers) to have our cake and eat it: state-sponsored super-assassin violence may be a bad thing, but when it turns on itself it makes an electrifying movie.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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